For nearly a decade, YouTube has been a smorgasbord of free music online, making just about every song imaginable — Top 40 hits, bedroom ukulele covers — available at a click. But soon the site will start asking users to pay for additional perks.
On Wednesday, YouTube announced YouTube Music Key, a long-awaited upgrade of its music offerings that will include higher-quality audio and give users the option of paying $7.99 a month for extra features, chief among them removing YouTube’s ubiquitous ads.
The change, in the works for more than a year, is in part a concession to the music industry, which tends to view YouTube as a phenomenally useful promotional platform whose royalty payouts have remained frustratingly low. The Google-owned site says it attracts 1 billion unique users each month, and music videos of various kinds have long been one of its biggest attractions.
“We want to give fans more ways to enjoy music on YouTube but also give artists more opportunities to connect with fans and earn more revenues,” said Christophe Muller, YouTube’s music-partnerships director.
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Music Key will become available in the coming days in the United States, Britain and a handful of other European countries. Following Google’s preferred pattern of introducing products through “beta” testing, the service will at first be available by invitation only. It is expected to be offered to all users by next year.
For the first six months, access will be free, then go up to $7.99. The charge will be $9.99 for people not invited but who sign up next year.
YouTube has charged for access to some content before, including a small number of special channels. But this is the first time the site has instituted such a broad payment plan.
For Google, it is partly a test of the subscription model itself, something its executives have said the company is considering generally as an addition to its free offerings.
As part of the introduction of Music Key, YouTube’s music catalog is getting a makeover for all users, paying or not. The site will now offer complete albums, adding static video files with high-quality audio where no official videos are available.
For paying subscribers, YouTube will add two features especially attractive to users on mobile devices: the ability to play songs in the background while using other apps and to save songs for offline listening.
As a bonus, paying users will get Google Play Music, the on-demand audio service that has been Google’s main competitor to Spotify. (As part of the change, that service will switch its name from the rather unwieldy Google Play Music All Access.)
To build the new service, YouTube has been negotiating with record companies and music publishers for more than a year to grant new and more extensive licensing deals. It closed deals in 2013 with the three major record labels, Universal, Sony and Warner, but the service was delayed in part over a negotiating dispute with independent labels, which complained YouTube was offering unfair contracts.
That dispute ended recently when YouTube signed an agreement with Merlin, an organization that represents thousands of small labels.